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Thursday, 14 February 2019

Always Wanted to Know What the View Would Be Like from the Top of a Grain Elevator

Another flashback to Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ( More when I get back from Scotland.

My usual perspective on the Great Plains - which was why I was so keen to get up that elevator 

The town looked like all the others, except that it had a brick-paved crossroads. I’d paid a courtesy call at the museum, got directions to the library, and after emailing home I’d wandered down to the railroad tracks and the giant concrete elevator. I knew that the Grain Corporation had been run by the same family for four generations, and that a fifth was learning the trade. They’d told me so at the library. As a corporate historian with two studies of five-generation family firms behind me, I certainly wanted to hear the story of the business – but more than that I saw my chance to achieve a long-cherished ambition. 

   At home in England I find it difficult to walk up to a total stranger, introduce myself, and tell them what’s on my mind. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s too direct. Not that my grandmother, who looked after us when I was young, had any other approach to suggest. Her favourite saying was, ‘Those who ask don’t get; those who don’t ask don’t want.’ Work that one out.

   In America, of course, the direct approach is the one most likely to succeed. My most spectacular success in that line was an occasion in Lincoln, Nebraska, when I needed to borrow a bike to get me 600 miles from one end of the state to the other. True, I had turned a tenuous family connection with William F. Cody into one of those airy ‘I’m related to Buffalo Bill’ pitches. But the point was, I had been direct, bold, and unafraid.  The bike-shop owner liked my story, loaned me a $400 machine without batting an eyelid, then got on with running his business. If there’s one thing Americans admire above everything, it’s enterprise. It was, after all, an American President who reminded the people that ‘The business of America is business’.

   Plucking up my courage, I headed towards the elevator, hopping across the puddles and the railroad tracks, and entering the dusty little office that overlooked the weighbridge. There were five or six guys sitting around in overalls wearing baseball caps and clasping cups of coffee in broad, weathered hands. They looked up when I entered, but said nothing. ‘I’m looking for the boss,’ I said. One of them raised a stubby finger and pointed to a tall, slim man who might have been in his sixties. 

   He didn’t need much encouragement. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘historian’ he was off. It wasn’t just the way the guys rolled their eyes, drained their cups and returned to their various posts that gave me the impression they’d heard this before. The story tripped off the boss’s tongue as if he’d had to learn it for a high-school presentation. Our town. Or, in this case, Our Elevator.

   By the time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad came through this part of Kansas, the boss’s great-grandfather had already opened a feed-store and found himself trucking grain to and from a wooden elevator just a few yards from where we were sitting.  After a time the owner approached him, and said that since neither of them was making much money, why didn’t he buy the elevator?

   As the boss was telling me this, a huge truck had pulled up outside with a sighing of air-brakes, but he continued with his story as he waved the driver up to the mark, then started up the machinery to load it with milo, having first run a computer check on its moisture content. 

   The business knew good times in the early part of the twentieth century, but, like the entire agricultural sector – the single exception being tobacco, he believed – fell apart after the World War One. The Roaring Twenties may have been boom-time in urban America, but back on the farm they had a solid decade of getting used to the economic slowdown that was just around the corner for the rest of the country. In the Great Depression, the widespread drought and the cataclysmic dust storms that characterised the Dirty Thirties, things got even worse. To add to their particular woes, the old wooden elevator burned down. Then, during World War Two, the boss’s father, who’d taken over the helm, died suddenly. With most of the men-folk away, Grandma ran the operation. By the time the fighting was over they were $20,000 in the red. ‘Doesn’t sound much now,’ the boss remarked, ‘but at today’s values it’s around  $300,000.’ By hard work and good management they pulled through, and today they’re a thriving operation. The elevator under whose shadow we were sitting has a capacity  of 1.1 million bushels – that is, over 60,000,000 pounds, or 30,000 tons of golden grain. It’s a lot of cattle feed – and quite a few burger buns, for that matter. And it takes up one huge storage facility.

   The details were fascinating, but I had a sly little question to put to my host. ‘So,’ I asked, as the truck driver baled out of his cab and came inside for a drink, ‘how far is it to the top?’ It was an unnecessary piece of guile on my part, because the boss was already a jump ahead of me, leading me out of the door, across the loading bay, and turning to tell the guys he’d be back in a few minutes. Inside the elevator proper he ushered me into a wobbly metal cage, a wire-mesh cocoon, squeezed in beside me, and pressed the button. There was a sudden hum of electrical machinery and we were away – my first trip to the top of one of these cathedrals of the Plains. 

   The cage was clearly designed to take one slim man breathing shallowly, but my host pressed gently up against me, holding his breath and arching his back inwards as each successive concrete floor drifted past. ‘Used to be ropes, of course,’ he said, nodding towards the oiled cables snaking past us.

   On the top floor was a row of dusty windows, a smooth concrete floor, and the casings that covered the tops of the separate elevators that fed each of the concrete bins. ‘Just so long as you don’t get your milo mixed in with your maize,’ I shouted above the roar of fans and the shushing of grain as it poured in through the metal conduits. ‘Oh, we’re real careful about that,’ he said.

   I couldn’t wait to see the view, and I almost tripped on a piece of discarded cable as I made for the nearest window. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for, however: there was little to see out there but the grid-pattern lines of the town way below us, and the vast spread of prairie, mostly dun-coloured, reaching out to a distant, blurred horizon, where it merged into a grey sky. I’d been told it before, and now I was learning it for myself: there’s only one way to view the Plains, and that is on the ground, at sundown or sun-up. 



Thursday, 31 January 2019

Just Me and a Biker Gang, Camping out in the Wilds of Oklahoma

I'm taking off for a month's creative retreat in the northern wilderness (Scotland, that is). While I'm away, look out for a couple of extracts from my book Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ( While I'm away, I'll be writing about my life-long relationship with natural landscapes, my delight in travelling to remote places, my occasional need for solitude. In Oklahoma, when I was driving up (and down) the 100th meridian, I was reminded why I generally feel safer on my own than in company. 

After hundreds of miles of this kind of scenery, those bikers kind of livened things up for me

Boiling Springs, when I got there, turned out to be the central breeding-ground for the State of Oklahoma’s mosquito population. It was densely wooded, with fallen trees rotting at crazy angles in stagnant pools. Surprisingly though, the bugs seemed to have turned in early. Or perhaps they were waiting for the weather to warm up a bit: it had barely touched ninety during the day, after all.

The place had been constructed, or landscaped, or hewn out of virgin swamp, in the 1930s. It was a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps under the New Deal legislation that brought hope and self-respect to so many of those thrown out of work by the Depression. They even had a memorial to the CCC near the entrance, a marble thing erected in 1985 to commemorate the park’s fiftieth anniversary, and included on it was a relief portrait of the camp mascot, a German Shepherd named Mustard.  

What you want when you get to a place like this, late in the day, is one of two things.  Either to find that it’s totally deserted, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re perfectly safe – that is, you’ve only your mortal dread of the dark to contend with; or that there’s a reasonable sprinkling of camper-vans or tents around you, in which case you may feel reasonably sure that you’re probably safe – always leaving aside the possibility that all those retirees sitting in rocking-chairs outside their aluminium-clad Airflows aren’t part of giant conspiracy to do away with you. Well, you wouldn’t laugh if you once spent a night in a city park in Nebraska to be told a few miles down the road next morning that, ‘Hey, they caught those sonsabitches at last, eh?’ What sonsabitches, I asked. ‘Oh, coupla high school kids on a killing spree. Been kidnapping and murdering lone campers across the Midwest these last ten days.’  

So, the last thing you want is to find that you’ve got one other person, or, even worse, one other group of people, for company. Imagine how I felt when I passed a bunch of six barrel-shaped, mean-looking guys lounging around a collection of monster bikes with low-slung saddles and convoluted displays of gleaming chrome. Some of them had receding hair tied back in pony-tails; others wore piratical bandannas; all of them had bare upper arms decorated with a blend of scar-tissue and tattoos, along with daunting amounts of muscle. Plus at least one crucifix. If there’s one thing that scares the living shit out of me, it’s psychos wearing crucifixes. I was once rushed out of a bar in Albuquerque when a biker with bandages round both wrists and a cross tattooed on his fore-arm asked me whether I’d accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour. I made two mistakes. One, I told him I was an atheist; two, I laughed. My friend, a paramedic with considerable experience among such people – he spent most Saturday nights scraping their victims off the sidewalks – hustled me out of there. Fast.

Now, I’m well aware that not every biker is a Hell’s Angel, and that not all of them make a habit of killing their old ladies and spit-roasting their offspring. I’ve seen the weekend supplement pictures of them cradling their little tattooed cherubs. Trouble is, do you believe what you see in the Sunday papers? I’m not paranoid, but I do have a healthy fear of the unknown. And, inasmuch as I only glimpsed this bunch of murdering cut-throats once – and inasmuch as most of them wore mirrored wrap-around shades – I was in no position to make a balanced judgement as to the likelihood of my getting out of the Oklahoma Panhandle alive.     

Trying to ignore what I’d seen, I chose a secluded patch of grass, open on three sides but with a stretch of water behind me. There was little likelihood of their launching an assault through three feet of black slime, surely. I put up my tent, then did a bit of exploring. What the place lacked was drinking water. There were the usual stand-pipes, but the supply hadn’t yet been turned on for the season. However, I still had a four-gallon container of spring water in the boot, and I had a couple of bottles-full on the front seat.

The shower-block, at least, was open, and the water ran hot – eventually. But the toilets – well, the toilets were a little unusual. Either they’d been deliberately left half-finished or they’d been deliberately half-dismantled. For the stalls, ‘the crappers’, as Americans graphically describe them, were contained by walls that came up to my waist. I looked around for signs that there might be builders at work – or maybe demolition men. But no: the three-and-a-half-feet of brickwork was finished off with a neat dash of cement. They were supposed to be that way. Anyone crapping on this site would have to have an exhibitionist tendency.   

Making quite certain that no one was around, I went to the nearest cubicle, opened the door – I mean the gate – and sat on the toilet seat. Kind of a test run, you might say. Even sitting down I soon saw that I would be entirely visible to anyone who happened to saunter in.

And what if it were the Hell’s Angels? What if I were there in there, minding my own business, and I heard their fairy foot-steps crunching over the gravel? It wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.

The earth under the trees was nice and soft. With a stout stick I was able to gouge a neat hole, attend to my needs in peace, and bury the evidence under a little mound of black soil and leaf-mould. Job done.

I don’t know where the bikers spent the night. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to know.  If I could see them or hear them, yes, I would be able to keep track of them. But that would have meant spending the whole night awake, watching, listening, quaking. As it was, they were out of earshot and I was able to persuade myself that they’d gone into town, where they’d invade the first bar they came to, bust a few chairs over the proprietor’s head, and then impress the local females by crushing billiard-balls with their bare hands before trashing the whole place and riding back to camp with the best-looking girls slung across their petrol-tanks. They’d doubtless be gone some time. 

I did get to sleep, but not for long. I’d pegged the tent nice and tight, as usual, but it had managed to slacken off and once the wind got to work it flap-flapped all through the night. From somewhere out on the flatlands there was the mournful sound of freight trains whistling through.

I was up as soon as it got light, and had my tent packed in record time. For breakfast I  made do with a can of orange juice. Then, seeing no signs of life, I headed for the shower-block. And there, enthroned on one of the toilets and humming a cheery tune, was one of the bikers. No bandanna, no mirrored shades, ginger hair all askew, leather trousers round his ankles, his eyes glistening perceptibly as a loud ker-splosh! echoed off the white-washed walls. 

‘Real pretty day!’ he called across as I went to the farthest wash-basin and put the plug in.

‘Yeah, right.’ No way was I going to argue the point. 

‘Sleep all right with all that wind?’ I could hear him yanking a few yards of paper off the roll and screwing it in a ball.

‘Oh yeah – fine.  Thanks.’ I decided against mentioning those wakeful spells as I imagined what he and his cronies might do if they spotted me.

I risked a glance in his direction and saw him grin at me as he hitched up his trousers. ‘Yeah, it sure blew pretty hard.’ He walked all the way across to the basin beside me, and washed his hands.  It seemed that he took an awful long time over it, and washed with unnecessary vigour. Perhaps last night’s blood was still there under his fingernails. As I brushed my teeth I watched him rub the soap up his wrists and work it into the thick hair before rinsing off - ever so thoroughly.

After he’d dried – slowly, deliberately, with the same painstaking attention to detail – he held out his hand. His handshake was firm, but his palm was surprisingly soft. His name was Dave, he told me. He wanted to know what I was doing. I synopsised my month-long trip into about eight words. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But Dave seemed surprisingly meek and mild. He said my trip sounded real neat. He and his buddies were taking a little jaunt too: Houston to Seattle and back via Minneapolis. He’d been in college there, twenty-some years ago.  

I wondered what on earth these guys might have studied, and he clearly read my thoughts.

‘Medicine,’ he said. ‘We were all medics together. Then we went our separate ways. My buddies are all surgeons,’ he said. ‘I’m the odd man out: I’m in obstetrics.’ With that he wished me luck and took off for Oregon.

Friday, 4 January 2019

150 years on, a commemoration of the driving of the Golden Spike (free download)

2019 is a special year for students of the American West. May 10th sees the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, when a golden spike was driven home and the final connection made between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.

In 1986-87 I spent a year in New Mexico as part of degree programme in American Studies. I hung out from time to time with railroad men, largely because that was my field prior to returning to the classroom as a 35-year-old. I had at various times been a shunter (switchman), a signalman and a freight train guard (brakemen) in the UK. When I left Albuquerque a friend who lived in the north of the state gave me as a souvenir a railroad spike. The following year, as I compiled a collection of eight or ten short stories for my undergraduate dissertation, I wrote 'The Golden Spike'. It was published in 1989 in Critical Quarterly - which was quite a feather in my cap at that time.

The with sesquicentennial coming up, not to mention the 30th anniversary of its first publication, I thought it was a good time to put it out as an ebook. And for a few days - Saturday 5 January to Wednesday 9 January - you can download a copy for free by following this link:

I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, maybe check out my other books about the American West by clicking on the pictures (right).150 Years on,


Friday, 30 November 2018

Mata Hari wanted to know whether I had something... more substantial for her.

Night-time in Koln

I'm just back from a return visit to Koln where we spent two days re-working the Sherlock Musical ( 
And then on Wednesday night I went to the Urania Theatre ( to watch another performance. I emerged wondering why we are trying to change it at all. The house was packed, the audience seemed to love it; the cast appear to be having fun; there is a genuinely feel-good atmosphere about the place.
The answer, of course, lies in the constant search for improvements, and our efforts to make the very best of a show that certainly starts well - vital, brisk, somewhat intriguing - but isn't yet water-tight. Dare I say it, we are reaching for the stars; we wish to create a show that will wow them in Hamburg, Berlin, London.... who knows where else?
So what I thought was a simple enough job when I started back in June - to write a story that would be transformed into a musical show - now has echoes of Koln's famous Dom (above): it took an age to complete (seven centuries, if truth be told)and is constantly being renovated.
Still, there are compensations. Backstage after the show I spoke with our rather wonderful Mata Hari, Kim Morales ( and complained that there were still scenes to re-write. She gave me a radiant smile and said, 'Maybe a little more for me then?'

Suddenly I felt the urge to get back to my keyboard.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

In Koln, for the premiere of Sherlock, Das Musical

The instantly recognisable twin towers of Koln cathedral
Just back from a few days in Germany for the premiere of the Sherlock Musical. This has been a remarkable few months. It started with a chance meeting at a one-day class about social media. There I met Steve Collins Wilson, film-maker, and asked him if he fancied a follow-up meeting to talk about areas of common interest - and to sample the beer at our local.

When we met he had with him a friend, Bettina Montazem, co-director of the Urania Theatre:

The Urania Theatre, Platenstrasse, Koln.

All I remember of that meeting is that Bettina told me she was planning a musical about Sherlock as an old man. I asked when it was set, and she told me it would be around 1915. 'Oh great,' I said, 'you can  get in a lot of references to the Great War. Maybe have a Zeppelin raid on Baker Street.' That was when she revealed that the script writers she had commissioned had no such plans. They had never mentioned the war. A few days later she emailed me and asked whether, as a writer who had previously worked  in TV drama, I would like to be a script consultant.
'You mean picking holes in other people's work?' I replied. 'I'm your man.'
By the time we met again, she had sacked the script team and was... well, let's say that, with only five months left, and having sold the show to a number of other theatres in Germany, she was a trifle anxious. That's when she asked me whether I would have a bash at writing a script. Six days later handed her the first version.
Over the next 2-3 months we had several meetings in Koln and Durham. As a newly formed team,  Bettina, Steve, myself, and musical director Steve Nobles made amendments to the plot and structure, before leaving Steve N to go and write the songs.
We all knew, all along the line, that aiming for an opening night as early as November 7th was ambitious. When I went to the theatre last Monday (the 5th) to see a run-through of Act 1, all seemed well. It really sparkled. Then we started on Act 2. There were problems. Huge ones. I returned to my hotel at two o'clock in the morning with a sense of imminent doom.
All I can say now is that it is a huge tribute to the energy and dedication of the players, the crew and the director - and possibly some omnipotent figure in the sky - that our world premiere went ahead at all. More than that, and despite all the problems and crises, it was, I would say, a triumph. The audience loved it; the players loved it; and the one newspaper review we have had so far is full of praise. We know there are improvements to make, and that no show ever peaks on opening night, but we are immensely heartened by what we have so far.
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So, a great few days, a theatrical success, but this is not a time to celebrate. We need to regroup and turn a good show into a great one. Looks like another trip to Koln for me. But that's fine: I am growing to love the place. 
I once heard a former RAF pilot talking about the 'Dom', as this great edifice (above) is known. He was asked why it  suffered so little damage when the town around it, and the rail yards, were shattered. 'Simple,' he said, 'we made the cathedral our target, night after night. And generally, we missed it.'